The Information Age
We’re said to live in the Age of Information. Awesome amounts of information sits at our fingertips. We can type the word “coconut” into Google and receive 518 million search results in .84 seconds. We can pick up the Sunday edition of the New York Times and hold more information in our hands than existed in writing in the entire 15th-century.
Information is generally believed to (a) be valuable and (b) help us make decisions. Or, at least that’s what standard economic theory tells us about information. But there’s a group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University who have been digging into the “New Economics of Information.”
Their names are George Loewenstein, Russell Golman, and David Hagmann, and their research has uncovered what’s called “information avoidance.”
If you’ve ever had a manager who avoids hearing perspectives that differ from their own, then you know what we’re talking about. And if you’ve ever enjoyed a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream without turning to the nutritional information on the back, then you definitely know what we’re talking about.
These are just a couple of examples of information avoidance, but the big idea here is that: there’s a ton of information in our world, but we make very little use of it. Information avoidance refers to situations where we choose to avoid information, even when it’s free and useful.
Why is that? It isn’t always because we’re lazy. We avoid information for a reason. By the end of this article we’ll have a better understanding of information avoidance—what is is, how it works, and how it impacts our world.
The Economics of Information
Decades of Economics research has peddled the idea that information is essential to effective decision making. It proclaims that people should:
- Seek out information that will help us make decisions
- Update our beliefs when we encounter new valid information
- Never actively avoid information
What this tells us is that standard Economics believes information is a means to an end—that the purpose of information is to help us make better decisions.
For the most part, this is true. But standard economics is missing a massive piece of the puzzle. It overlooks the reality that: the way that we perceive information is often as important as the information itself.
This approach is more aligned with Behavioral Economics. It begins to build an understanding of information through the lens of ‘belief based utility’. Utility is just a word that Economists use to describe value. I get a lot of utility—or value—from eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
What ‘belief based utility’ means is that people gain pleasure and pain from the things in their mind—we get value from the beliefs that we hold. In practice, this means that people are motivated to hold a certain belief because they feel good about it or because it fits into their worldview.
The major implication here is that we tend to process information in a biased way that supports what we want to believe. George Loewenstein likes to say that we process information through one of two lenses. When we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” When we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?”
This can help us better understand how we use information to make decisions.
Information is not just a means to an end; information can be its own end because of the hedonic benefits it may offer us.
We might focus on information that affirms or beliefs or reflects positively on us. We might even go so far as to avoid information that threatens our happiness and general wellbeing—we might actively avoid information.
What is information avoidance?
In their research, Loewenstein, Golman, and Hagmann focus on active information avoidance. Active information avoidance means that we:
- (a) are aware that the information exists
- (b) have free access to the information
We have to know that the information is out there to avoid it, and it has to be free, otherwise we may have a legitimate reason for not obtaining it.
Let’s take, for example, my bank account. If I know that my bank account is getting low, I might choose to avoid logging in to see just how low it really is. I know that I can check my balance online, and I know that it’s free to do so. But, I’m not going to look because I might feel bad if I’m greeted by the meager sum of $100 once I log on.
What’s interesting about this example is that this information would actually help me make better decisions. If I checked my balance, then I could better budget my remaining funds or I could move more funds in from another account. Even though the information would be helpful, I’m avoiding it because I know it might bring me pain. And I don’t want to feel bad—I want to feel good!
We do this a lot more than we realize.
We do this whenever we go out to dinner and use the menu to decide what we should eat. Most menus these days have calorie information right next to menu items. Do we use this? Sure we do; but, I can guarantee that all of us have seen the absurd number of calories in a dish, chosen it anyway, and forgotten the number by the time our meal comes out. Why do we do this? Because we want to enjoy our meal!
Decision making, after all, is a process that impacts our own enjoyment of life. So if we feel immense guilt each time we bite into a 1,300 calorie burger, we are not going to enjoy it. So we employ different techniques to avoid the information that might detract from our enjoyment of life.
In some cases, we avoid information to allow us to behave how we would really like to behave.
How do we avoid information?
Information avoidance might seem fairly straightforward, but Loewenstein, Golman, and Hagmann have found four main techniques we use to avoid information.
- Physical Avoidance This means avoiding interaction with a source of information. We might avoid reading certain newspapers, listening to specific radio or tv programs, or even having conversations with specific people.
- Inattention Our attention is a limited resource, and we have to allocate how we use it. We may choose—rationally, even—to allocate our attention in ways that bring us more enjoyment in life. For instance, we may read an article and then choose not to think about the article that we read because we feel like our attention could be used for better returns elsewhere.
- Biased interpretation of information We tend to process information in a biased way that supports what we want to believe. Our access to information has grown exponentially, but technologies like the internet have also made it possible to spend more time in ideological echo chambers. Most of us will choose to visit a news site that aligns with our beliefs rather than one that challenges it.
- Forgetting Quite simply, we may practice “motivated forgetting.” We may actively try to forget unpleasant life experiences or information that we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing.
The Ostrich Effect
Perhaps some of the most interesting examples of information avoidance stem from what has been dubbed “The Ostrich Effect.” Research on this effect has shown that investors are less likely to check their portfolio online when the stock market is down.
From a rational perspective, this doesn’t make any sense. The same amount of information conveyed to investors whether the market is tanking or soaring.
What this suggests is that investors get some sort of (dis)utility—or pain—from logging in to see their losses.
Another group of researchers were able to replicate this; in fact, their results were even more intriguing. They found that, when the stock market was up, investors were more likely to log in and check their portfolio multiple times on the weekends. It’s important to remember that markets close at 4pm on Friday afternoon, so there is no new information available for investors over the weekend. Investors are checking their portfolio because the information gives them that coveted warm, fuzzy glow.
This again, suggests that information is not just a means to an end. Information can be perceived as pleasure or pain in the mind, and we will seek out the information that brings us pleasure, whilst we avoid the information that brings us pain.
Problems with information avoidance
The most obvious problem stemming from information avoidance is that, as Loewenstein, Golman, and Hagmann write, “it robs people of potentially useful information that could be used to enhance decision making.” Information is a valuable input for decision making, and when we avoid it, the quality of our decision making may suffer.
When we overlook the calorie information on the pint of Ben and Jerry’s we just crushed, we might be acting in a way that is misaligned with our long term goals (read: general health).
When managers avoid criticism or fail to listen to feedback, they miss out on valuable information that could help them improve their skills. Loewenstein, Golman, and Hagmann even write that, “…the people who could most benefit from feedback are often, paradoxically, those most likely to eschew it.”
There are plenty of examples where information avoidance robs us of valuable decision making inputs, but research also suggests that information avoidance can lead us towards unethical behavior, groupthink, confirmation bias, media bias, and increased political polarization.
What should we do about it?
So, we all practice information avoidance from time to time. Can we do anything about it? Should we do anything about it?
I think an important point to make here is that information avoidance isn’t irrational at all. This is a point that George Loewenstein makes clear. We avoid information because it’s painful to get that information. “It’s good to feel good.”
Obviously, there are some pitfalls we might experience if we’re unaware of our information avoidance, but I think the real value here comes from updating our understanding of information.
Yes, information is a valuable resource—one that can help us make better decisions. But, information is a source of value on its own. Information avoidance is not always a bad thing. There is a reason that we avoid information: it brings us utility (read: value).
Once we understand how human beings and information interact with each other, then we can begin to make more informed decisions. We’re occasionally going to eat a massive burger and fries, and it might be in our best interest to avoid the calorie information on the menu when we do so (if we’re at all interested in happiness, that is). But we also need to be careful that we’re not robbing ourselves of vital information when we’re making important decisions.
If we walk away with one idea from this notion of information avoidance, it should be to understand that information is a useful input, but exposing ourselves to certain information will also be perceived directly as pleasure or pain in our mind.
As the authors conclude in their paper, “most of what matters happens ‘inside our heads,’ and, given that there are often multiple ways to interpret the same piece of information, how we construe information is often as important as the objective content of the information.”